Read Meteor Part 1.
A faint odor—slightly sour, slightly sweet—tinged the air. It was almost familiar.
Paloma and I stood on the bank of a giant square pond ringed by mats of floating vegetation watching water bugs dance on the water’s surface. A clover-like plant stabilized the banks. Something moved in the water.
I took a step back. “What was that?”
Paloma laughed. “Tilapia. Not a threat.”
“So this is a fish farm?”
“And a sewage treatment plant. The fish convert the organics to protein, and the water hyacinth absorbs heavy metals into their roots.”
“Organics?” A fish rose and sucked a bug under.
“What you think it is.”
I made a face.
“It’s better than dumping chemicals to treat sewage. Once a year we drain the ponds and spread the sludge on the fields.” She pointed to the green fields screened from the ponds behind a screen of trees. Paloma started towards the tree line. A narrow path that ran along the edge of the ponds toward the fields. Beyond them parched, cracked earth and, in the distance, hazy mountains.
“We’re reclaiming land that was desertified. We grow most of our own food and sell what we can’t eat on the black market.”
I turned to look back at the ponds. “I guess manure is manure in the end.”
“That’s why I wanted you to see this.”
“Because poop-based aquaculture is going to save us all?”
She smiled. “A lot of us.”
“No offense, seems a bit pollyannaish to me.”
“It saved your life.”
“What do you mean?” Paloma didn’t answer. A few steps later, the penny dropped. “You noticed that people who ate your produce weren’t getting sick, and you traced it back to the water.”
“Yeah, that’s basically what happened.”
“Have you isolated the bacterium?”
“We’re trying to culture it. Right now we ferment the sewage, then filter it, then dry it. Desiccation causes the bacteria to sporulate.”
The field was a riot of plant life. Corn, beans, squash, peppers. Vines I couldn’t name twined around the corn stalks, what looked like bunches of different herbs were scattered here and there. The soil underneath the plants was a dark, rich brown, almost black. I knelt and picked up a handful of dirt. Squeezed it between my fingers. Felt the life in it.
I stood and sifted the earth back into the field. “And the schnapps?”
“High enough alcohol content to prevent other bugs from growing in there and sugar to mask the taste.” She must have seen the look on my face. Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t be so precious. You’re alive because of it.”
I shrugged. “Fair enough. It did taste good.”
“Right now the only way to spread the bacterium is person to person. It takes time.” She grimaced. “And it’s risky. As you saw.”
“How come Fuego wasn’t immune?”
“He’d been working undercover in Elite communities for years. We couldn’t get the bacterium to him.” She walked into the mass of plant life.
I followed, stepping carefully. “I’ve got a question.”
She paused, looked at me, then kept walking.
“Why do you trust me? Fuego made it sound like you’re pretty high up, and here you are showing me the fish ponds, the fields, and walking around with no bodyguards.”
Paloma stopped. She didn’t turn but spoke facing away from me. “One night, on the balcony, a bird flew into your window.”
“It was a redpoll.” I’d found it limp beneath the window, more a pile of feathers than a bird. It was beautiful, its body tiny but stout, weightless in my palm. Brown streaks on his sides, black under his pointed bill, pink splashed across his chest, a jaunty red cap atop his head.
“The way you picked it up and held it,” Paloma said, “and put it in a box with an old shirt to keep it warm.”
“It didn’t survive.”
“I know,” she said, “but you tried.” She turned to face me. “The compassion you showed that bird is why I know you’re not a threat to me.” She paused. “Plus, watching you move tells me you’re not a trained fighter. I could take you out hopping one leg with one arm behind my back.” Paloma looked skyward.
I looked up but didn’t see anything.
“We should head back.” She turned and started picking her way through the field toward the ponds and the crumbling brick compound.
I stepped over a squash the size of my pinky. “Is there any way to distribute the bacterium more quickly? Work with the Elites to lighten the lockdown? It could save lives.”
She snorted. “Did the Elites try to save your family’s lives? My family’s? No. They locked us up to be their guinea pigs.”
I stayed silent.
“If we handed them this, they’d just use it to screw us further. Like they did with corona and every pandemic since. Hoard the cure, privatize the profits, fuck the poor.” She shook her head. “This is our last chance to be anything but serfs. We have to save ourselves first. If any Elites survive, we’ll deal with them later.”
If you liked this, you might like Riddley Walker’s Dogs.